Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 18, 2007

Jewish Voices?

Readers may recall the debate over the creation of Independent Jewish Voices, a new network of “independent” Jews in the UK. IJV’s manifesto is first and foremost a political document, lacking any real connection to the religious sensibilities and needs of Jews. A testament to this is the fact that the group’s second public outing took place Friday at the City Circle, a new Muslim organization whose aims are:

to promote the development of a distinct British Muslim identity; to assist the process of community cohesion and integration by building bilateral strategic alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; and to harness and channel the skills and resources of Muslim professionals into practical projects thereby facilitating and empowering young Muslim women and men to “put back in” to the wider British community.

All commendable purposes, certainly. But why did IJV choose this venue? There is nothing distinctly Jewish about interfaith dialogue and cultural pluralism: they belong much more to the political order of secular modernity. An organization that claims to represent a part of the Jewish world marginalized by the Jewish establishment should strive to show more awareness of—to say nothing of identification with—specifically Jewish values.

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Readers may recall the debate over the creation of Independent Jewish Voices, a new network of “independent” Jews in the UK. IJV’s manifesto is first and foremost a political document, lacking any real connection to the religious sensibilities and needs of Jews. A testament to this is the fact that the group’s second public outing took place Friday at the City Circle, a new Muslim organization whose aims are:

to promote the development of a distinct British Muslim identity; to assist the process of community cohesion and integration by building bilateral strategic alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; and to harness and channel the skills and resources of Muslim professionals into practical projects thereby facilitating and empowering young Muslim women and men to “put back in” to the wider British community.

All commendable purposes, certainly. But why did IJV choose this venue? There is nothing distinctly Jewish about interfaith dialogue and cultural pluralism: they belong much more to the political order of secular modernity. An organization that claims to represent a part of the Jewish world marginalized by the Jewish establishment should strive to show more awareness of—to say nothing of identification with—specifically Jewish values.

We live in a world where Jewish identity comes in many forms. It may not be exclusively expressed through a connection to Israel, or through religious observance, or through Yiddishkeit. But at least one of these elements should be present to some degree in the DNA of an organization claiming to speak for even a small segment of Jews. And all three are conspicuous by their absence from the words and actions of IJV.

The City Circle that played host to IJV has made it clear that its basic aim—to create an open and pluralist forum for British Muslims—will not contravene the tenets of Islam. The group shows (as is perfectly reasonable for a Muslim group) no similar sensitivity to Jewish ritual needs: its events calendar states that “Weekly events are held every Friday evening from 6:45 pm, except for public or Muslim holidays, or during the month of Ramadan.”

If the City Circle had been asked specifically, it might well have made an exception, and held the meeting on, say, a Sunday or a Thursday evening. On the other hand, why should it have? The Jews the organization is hosting are not, apparently, bothered by publicly breaking shabbos. The City Circle can be said to speak credibly for Muslims because it respects fundamental Muslim beliefs. IJV, however, has blithely violated one of the most basic principles of Jewish law, which should bring their much-touted identity as Jews into question.

But however misdirected the group’s efforts at self-definition may be, they are worth examining. In the end, IJV’s “Jewishness” seems to consist largely in its claim to embody the authentic tradition of the Hebrew prophets. As Brian Klug, one of IJV’s founding members, wrote:

When the language of human rights is spoken, many of us (secular and religious) hear the voices of those Hebrew prophets, rabbis, writers, activists, and other Jewish figures down the centuries for whom Judaism means nothing if it does not mean social justice.

Jacqueline Rose, another IJV stalwart, has taken issue with my criticisms of the incongruence of these fully secular, anti-Zionist Jews evoking the prophets to defend their positions on Israel. That shows, I would argue, how uncomfortable she is with the real ideas of the prophets, who championed the violent destruction of Israel’s enemies, the exclusive and divine Jewish right to the whole land of Israel, and stringent adherence to the Torah.

She might feel more at home with another Jewish prophet, Jesus (a well-known preacher who once suggested turning the other cheek to one’s enemies). IJV’s representatives should have quoted from his teachings at the City Circle meeting. It would have proved beyond any reasonable doubt what kind of Jewish identity IJV actually posseses: none at all.

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